About the Author: Nicole Thompson serves as a Press Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq.
A colleague in Washington asked me to write a Memorial Day post for DipNote. I understood his reasoning; I am, after all, a third generation American war veteran. My father was sent to Vietnam in 1970, and his father was drafted to be a cook aboard a U.S. Navy battleship in 1943. As a member of the U.S. Army, I touched down in the Middle East two days before combat began in 2003, and rolled into central Iraq a month later. This year I voluntarily returned to Baghdad, this time out of uniform, with a diplomatic passport in hand.
I thought I’d write about the importance of service to country and the gallant sacrifice of those who defend our freedom. Instead, I opt to tell another tale — the story of my first Rest and Recuperation (R&R) break from Iraq. Through a series of blunders, I managed to miss the flight specifically designated to lift U.S. Embassy employees out of Iraq and into surrounding countries for departure and dispatch to all parts of the globe. I wound up stuck at a hot, dusty airport with little prospect of getting out of the country for at least 48 hours.
After much sad-eyed pleading, I was squeezed onto a non-embassy flight. I was ushered to a seat as over 250 battle-hardened soldiers, tossing their grimy gear and massive back packs to the ground, began to fill the small airport’s waiting area. Their talk varied wildly; spanning excitement to see spouses, progress of a pit bull puppy’s growth, to plans for college enrollment, pending divorce and ultimate fighting championships. The men themselves were as varied as their talk. A lanky young Asian American lieutenant, a hawk-eyed Latino sergeant keeping close watch of a group of rosy-cheeked privates, and a bellowing major sporting a cap of red crew-cut hair all surrounded me. Each of the men was so different, but somehow, they were one. These men, I later learned, were members of the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division, 2nd Brigade. They had served over 14 months in Baghdad. On the Monday we observed Memorial Day in 2009, they were finally going home.
I cannot describe the honor of being among these men. Inside this cadre of warriors, I was the lone civilian and the only woman. One small diplomat dressed in a concert t-shirt and colorful head wrap, filled with respect and admiration. Once we were all crammed aboard the giant aircraft that would ferry me to vacation, and the soldiers to their homes and families, a couple of them took a moment to entertain my questions about their mission and experiences in Iraq. I dared not ask how many of their brothers had fallen during the long tour.
Unbeknownst to them, these men provided a memory that will last my lifetime. Those few hours among their ranks were a great privilege. Sometimes it’s so easy to become entrenched and consumed by the day-to-day meetings and receptions and memos that accompany diplomacy in a war zone. To the battle-hardened men and women of the armed forces, I’d like to pause for a moment to say, thank you.